John Sexton

Achieving a Civil Society

VTR Date: March 30, 2013

John Sexton discusses American culture and the future of civil society.


GUEST: John Sexton
AIR DATE: 03/30/2013
VTR: 11/08/2012

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And again this week I have the pleasure of talking with New York University’s global minded President, my good friend and frequent guest John Sexton. Last time, of course, we did something of an exegesis of his splendid new Penguin Group book, Baseball as a Road to God.

But now I want to hark back to a perfectly masterful exchange my guest had on the air several years ago with our mutual friend Bill Moyers. I watched it again the other evening, heard my guest talk about there being “no serious conversation” in America these days, about what he called our growing “allergy to nuance and complexity”, about our “Coliseum Culture”.

And it all made me think about NYU’s own “Dialogues On a Global Civil Society” and about questions I’ve meant to put more directly to my guest than ever before when John Sexton has joined me so frequently in the past.

These questions have to do with fairness and decency and concern for others – am I my brother’s keeper, for instance – have to do with what seems to me to be a growing INcivility in our society, with an ever increasing “I’m alright Jack, and the Devil take the hindmost” element in our dealing with others, indeed, have to do with an ever more pronounced refusal to regard others than ourselves and our private connections, with a greater and greater willingness to trim and cut corners in just about every endeavor, public or private.

John Sexton approaches life as a historian, a theologian, a legal philosopher…above all else as a teacher. And I wonder if he sees this same decline in concern for others, for a civil society, for a shared moral sense, that I see. John? What do you think. Where are we going to hell in a bread basket?

SEXTON: Well, look, look … I like you am an optimist. I’m, I’m, I’m at base what I call a Teihardian progressive. So I, I believe as Teihard de Chardin taught me when I was a student at Fordham … first for my Bachelor’s degree and then for my Ph.D. in religion … I, I, I believe humankind is progressing.

But much like … as Teihard used evolution, much like evolution is a metaphor. There are fits and starts and we work our way, but ultimately, I think, I, I have optimism that humankind will, will, will come out of this on an even higher plane. The evidence is overwhelming to the contrary, of course, and it’s easy to, to, to feel like the great Don Quixote … you know (laugh) that one is titling at windmills in, in this battle.

But I, I, I do … I certainly am not going to bet against that. You know it’s kind of Pascal’s wager … and, and I do believe fundamentally that, that, that we will overcome and that, that humankind will rise to a higher plane.

What are the, the signs that trouble you and me, however? We, we’ve just come through a, a, a Presidential period where there was no respect for truth. No respect for fact, let alone respect for one’s dialogic partner in the process.

In, increasingly we, in America, especially, but it’s not simply in America, I just know America best … but we, we in America have developed a deep allergy to complexity and to nuance. And, and we, we want simple answers. And, and, and then we compound our desire for simple answers with an impatience that requires simple and immediate answers. And, and, and answers that give us immediate gratification.

So you know, one can trace virtually all of the, the vexing problems we face to, to this fundamental character flaw in the American character at this point. You know, whether, whether it be the budget deficit or Social Society or Medicare or climate change, the debt … whatever you want to discuss, it’s, it’s all a product of … first of all, don’t present me with complexity, give me a simple answer and an answer that produces immediate gratification for me.

The word “sacrifice” never comes into the picture at all, let alone sacrifice for others … people aren’t even willing to make short term sacrifice for their own good, let alone for their children’s good or, or for the good of their grandchildren.

So … when one sees that working itself out, one gets very worried. But, but then something happens … you know, for me it’s being with, with my colleagues and especially my students and, and, and seeing in them a real attention for the common weal.

The, the experience, for example at NYU when our community gathered together in, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy was quite remarkable. It was evocative for me of the way … especially New York City, south of 14th Street gathered together in the wake of 9/11. And, and you could feel a moral surge, you could feel that, that, that … extraordinary acts of generosity.

I’ll just give you one example. Okay. So, we, we … we were fortunate at NYU that, that … because we had built an independent co-generation plant that, that 40 of our buildings had power. But many of them did not. This in a way made all the more torturous the experience of those that were in the buildings that had no power … because they could look out on colleagues, friends that were across the street, literally … literally across the street … they would be seen out of their dark windows and there they were living normally.

Now, happily, one of the first things that happened was the people that had power, the students that were in dorms that had power, or the faculty that were living with their families in, in buildings that had power … began to invite people in. And share. So that was, that was the first thing.

But, of course, not everybody was mobile and, and some people would just rather stay in their own space, for better or worse, especially of your family, you don’t want to impose … the week started going on.

And there was one building … cause you’ll recall the Marathon was, was postponed and there was one building in which there was a young man that was going to run in the marathon. And he was all trained up for it … and of course he had that disappointment. But what he did, instead, was he put on a miner’s hat with a light … because the stairwell’s were black … and, and he would, would … acted as a runner up the stairs … with water for people that were unable to leave their apartments.

Or he would take orders for food and groceries and when it was delivered he would be the delivery guy and he would get it up the stairs.

Now you know, you see something like that. You know, or I’d walk into an NYU classroom … this particular classroom has to be … happens to be one of the classes I teach at NYU Abu Dhabi and there in the second row is a young man named Theo. Freshman. Saw his mother, his father and seven of his siblings slaughtered in front of him in the Rwandan genocide.

He and his brother were left for dead. Three days before they got to a UN refugee camp. A couple of years before he got to a Kenyan high school, which is where we found him … top of the class … and here is in my, my course, my freshman course on religion and government because he would not be stopped. He was going to move out of that lowest of the low position and use education to empower himself, to go back to Rwanda … that’s his goal.

To go back to Rwanda to try to elevate that society. You see examples like that and you say, “Well, this … we, we, this is what we’ve got to emulate. And the more of us that can emulate it, you know, as Confucius said, “You start with the innermost circle and you work out and you can change all of society.”

HEFFNER: John, we began this program with your saying and I was going to interrupt you … your saying you’re an optimist … you said as I am … and I was going to say “Stop right there, don’t tar me with that brush. And you went on and I’m fascinated by what you said, you described civil society that is becoming less civil and less civil as we move along.

And then you pick examples and they’re notable examples … I realize … of noble activities on the part during the black out here or during the storm after Sandy, of individuals who have done splendid things. The young man who was going to race in the marathon, etc.

Doesn’t that beg the question as to the direction we’re going in? And I ask you that because you’re the scholar, you’re the historian, you’re the theologian, you’re seen and thought about all of this.

Think about Henry Adams Education …the famous place in which he talks about “evolution from lower to higher? I look at a portrait of George Washington and then I look at Ulysses S. Grant, evolution from lower to higher?” And I’m really asking …

SEXTON: Grant has followed Lincoln …

HEFFNER: Absolutely followed him, John … let’s under … let’s understand that. Are you concerned that if you don’t express the optimism that in part we all must feel if we’re to survive … go on from day to day … that this will not seem appropriate for the leader of a great institution? Why?

SEXTON: No, no … I’m not playing a role here and you’re not the kind of interviewer that elicits role-playing in any case. Your great genius is to get inside a person … and, and you know very well that I’m not playing a role here.

The, the … the first question, if I were to analyze it, is …the first question is … are there solutions? And, and not a single issue that I raised … not a single issue that you could raise … is beyond solution.

And, and one of the … one of the tragedies of the, the contemporary evolution of American politics is that, you know, you, you can sit in a room with people who are deeply mersed in any of the issues I talked about … you know, Social Security, Medicare, the debt, the deficit … even climate change. And, and the solutions are evident.

And so, so … okay that’s a pretty good place to start. These, these issues we face that we view as so horrible … are, are, are susceptible to solution. So what’s missing?

What’s, what’s missing is leadership. What is the cause of that leadership vacuum? Part of it is courage. But part of it is structural and, and you could do an analysis of the, the American political system at this point …

HEFFNER: Structural?

SEXTON: Yeah. I mean I, I … I … you know … if you gerrymander districts so that the single most important election is the predicate election that occurs in, in a primary which is dominated by an extreme of a party, you’re going to produce two candidates that, that play to the extreme and, and, and that becomes a necessity in order to get through Stage 1 and if it’s been gerrymandered there’s a free pass into, let’s say the House of Representatives.

So now what has happened is that, that … the, the mediating center has disappeared. And, and you know we talk about the, the electorate writ large as, as being dominated and you know, most people that work hard in elections, like my friend Bob Shrum for example, would, would say to you that the election is going to be decided by some relatively small percentage of the voters.

That, you know, you go into it … it’s like, it’s like baseball … we love to talk about baseball and in baseball at the beginning of the season, the worst team in baseball, you know, is going to win one game out of three. And the best team in baseball is going to lose one game out of three.

The key question is what happens in the middle third games? Well, in our elections the key question is what happens with … you know, it could be 6% … quote … “swing voters” … close quote, or it could be on the outside 16% … quote … “swing voters” … close quote.

All right, well those swing voters, you know, by and large are in this society we talked about where they’re relatively uninformed and they want simple answers and immediate solutions because they’ve allowed as participants in the polity to be in that place and they’re encouraged by the way we speak to them in political ads and even in debates where we just talking points and don’t engage each other and push the conversation on.

But in addition to that they’re, they’re just frustrated by the, by the dysfunction of government and the inability of these two extremes that are set by virtue of this past … I’m using the House of Representatives here as the example, but you could say the same thing in the Senate because we’re created a super-majority requirement …


SEXTON: … in the Senate. But there’s a bi-polarity which is designed no matter how the swing voter votes to frustrate the swing voter if the swing voter is genuinely in the middle because there are not candidates in the middle.

And the result of that then is that the swing voter continues to swing. Because there’s constant dissatisfaction. So there, there … these are all structural game theory problems that my colleagues at NYU could solve for us if, if we had leadership that would be willing to take it on.

And, and, you know … so, you know … if you’re a university President and you believe in thought then, then even though in, in the short term and look, you deal with this inside a university and outside the university.

Even, even though it is the, the normal state of being these days for people to think only in terms of the short term and the selfish short term at that … you have confidence in the power of thought ultimately to prevail.

Now, look, I’m an issue-spotter. I’m a lawyer, right, so I, I spot the issue, I see it and I’ll tell you this … the world is miniaturizing … we’re becoming more and more a fluid society. And, and the question is going to be, for this century, how are we going to handle this miniaturization?

Now, now we can respond to it by objectivizing and demonizing those that are different from us. And, and treating, you know, the evolution of humankind as if it were a flag game at a camp between the blues and the reds.

HEFFNER: The gladiator spirit.

SEXTON: Yeah. Or we can capture the wondrous way of looking at the world that in my church, we were taught by Pope John the 23rd which is that you can learn more about yourself through the gift of the seeing things through a different set of experiences and eyes. And, and I … we, we have no choice but to bet on the latter.

HEFFNER: John, you have another church … your other church is the university. Have the leaders of the universities in this country and in other countries been playing their proper roles? Their necessary roles?

SEXTON: You know, I, I have to say I’ve been enough to be put in, in this position at NYU that gives me a vantage point and view into that world. And, and I, I’m able to observe both the elite research universities because we gather as a group of about 60 … twice a year … and we speak regularly.

I’ve been lucky enough to be the head of American Council … the Chairman of the American Council on Education, which is all … the entire diversity from the great community colleges to the comprehensive colleges and the research universities.

And then I’m more and more in conversations outside the United States. And I would say … you cannot be in those conversations and leave without being impressed with the dedication of the men and women that are leading the universities in the world … by and large … at the, you know, at the meeting.

I’m not talking about, obviously, all of them … at the top … it’s extraordinary, I look at them as my heroes. And they are typically scholars of the first rank themselves … that could have lived a life of the professor and scholar and, and member of the academy and all of the great blandishments that come with that and, and it’s a very enriching, rewarding life … with your students … I mean this is … in my view … the greatest life that one could have.

But they’ve made the choice to, to sacrifice that … or at least significant elements of it … to enable the common enterprise of the university to work. Every single one of them is “common enterprise”, “common weal” dedicated.

Now … and, and I have to say I have a lot of faith in … especially at a place like NYU the common enterprise dedication of my colleagues.

So, listen, if, if, if our country or the world writ large were operating at the level of, of, of common weal attention that our universities are working at … we would be in very, very good shape.

HEFFNER: But are the universities helping the rest of the world work at that level?

SEXTON: The universities in my view are, are the last harbinger of, of, of … dedicated to the genuine advancement of thought.

HEFFNER: And providing the leadership? I don’t see it, John.

SEXTON: Well, I don’t know what … in what direction you’ve been looking. I mean …

HEFFNER: Not inside … I haven’t been looking inside the circles you’re talking about. What I’m talking about comes from my role as a citizen … just as a plain citizen looking to see whether the university leadership is providing me and the rest of our polity with that leadership.

SEXTON: Okay. Well, well, first of all … most of the advancements in, in your life … you know, scientific and otherwise … are being birthed now inside universities.

So, so, there’s all kinds of enhancements to your life that you may not associate with universities, but which come from universities. But more importantly … okay …the, the world of thought in which you live … is, is being advanced by the inculcation in young people of an attitude of learning and by the advancement of knowledge in the various areas that you’re interested in discussing.

So, I, I … I’m astonished that a person like you could … given the guests I know that you bring through … could, could be … we were just talking about several professors before we went on air … that, that, that … you, you were … and these people brought delight to you and important thoughts to you and advancements to society.

HEFFNER: John, John I’m not talking about that and I’m not talking about the scientific advancements, I’m talking about the role they play in leading, providing the leadership that you, yourself, said was so badly needed at this time.

Are universities doing what they once did? They did provide … they were perhaps only an occasional such leader. Do you think that the American Academy is doing what needs to be done by providing that leadership?

SEXTON: Look …first, I, I’ll point out gently the very contradiction in what you’re saying because you, you’re saying as you look at a University President who is providing a critique of society and calling it to a higher plane … why aren’t university presidents providing a critique of society and calling it to a higher plane …

HEFFNER: But you know I’m not talking about you.

SEXTON: Now, you might, you might want, you know, a Woodrow Wilson to emerge to run for President. I remind you that so also Dwight Eisenhower … and we could debate, you know, individuals.

The, the fact of the matter is that, that the universities, I, I believe are giving all kinds of leadership to our society.

Some of it is formal in the sense of moving into government. Others of … are doing it in a more indirect but very, very important way.

And I think our critical role is call society to the higher plane. And I see university presidents doing that around this country. The, the place where it’s most important, by the way, is in education itself. Because education is more and more the key to unlocking all the problems that we’ve just been talking about.

You cannot have a nuanced idea unless you’ve really been taught the skills of critical thinking, for example. And, and you can’t address complex issues unless you’ve got education to bring out all the potentials of your mind.

And the universities are where that’s going on and, and, and the product of universities and how well the universities do their job, and believe me, American universities are doing their job very well. And universities around the world are more and more emulating American universities and therefore doing their job better and better and the, the universities are the ones that give us the hope that this allergy to complexity and nuance will be reversed. Because we inoculate against that.

HEFFNER: John, are we going to see more scholars in politics? You mentioned Wilson.

SEXTON: I think we’re in danger … not only of losing scholars to politics or losing virtuous people to politics. Because …

HEFFNER: Oh, I didn’t say “to” … I meant can we cheer because we’ll see more scholars in politics.

SEXTON: No, no. I understand and I’m saying I think you’re in danger not only of losing scholars … and therefore answering your question negatively, but of losing virtuous people because if we put a tax on moving into the public sphere … this Coliseum society in which anyone who moves into the public sphere is immediately desiccated then I, I think you’re going to find that the only people that will move into that sphere are people that have an inordinate thirst for power or inordinate egos.

I, I think what we, we have to do and look there’s a way in which at least I … since you accused me earlier on of putting words in your mouth … I won’t put words in your mouth, although I’ll note for your …

HEFFNER: In a half minute, John …

SEXTON: Where, where, where … rarer and rarer in that we believe in institutions and we trust other humans. And, and if America doesn’t restore some kind of faith in institutions … and the institutions have to work on that such that we can have trust … and we have to work at that …then the chances of reversing this are, are minimized.

HEFFNER: And unless you and your colleagues provide leadership, I doubt that you’ll … we’ll achieve what you know we need to achieve.

SEXTON: On that … we agree.

HEFFNER: And on that note, thank you for joining me today on the Open Mind, John Sexton.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

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